Lanterns in Dark Places

I’m in Africa this week, a place I’ve dreamed of going since I was a little kid. In this bizarre new life of mine, here’s how I got here.

At around 6:45 PM on Thursday, February 2nd (the end of the work day), we got off the phone with one of our partners at the World Bank who informed us he was taking a visit to Nairobi next week. My boss considered things for a moment before turning to me and asking if I could go meet him there. When? I asked her. Sunday, she replied (that’s three days later for those of you keeping score).

One thing you learn at the UN is how to be blasé about these sorts of things. Every day, you run into people who have done stints on every continent of the world. They’ll tell stories about how they love New York but miss doing field work in the Congo, or about how they had close encounters with the Taliban in Afghanistan. They’d lament about missing an important conference in Delhi because of their daughter’s wedding in Lisbon. Fitting in with this crowd requires me to be dispassionate even when given news that I’d be fulfilling a lifelong dream on three days notice. I wouldn’t tell them that I had all sorts of trouble sleeping the night before my flight.

Only recently has a friend introduced me to the term “humble brag”, and I know how this might sound. For SURE, I did my share of humble bragging when I first started traveling for work. But lately, when I tell someone I’m going somewhere, they might notice instead a slight shaking of my head.

There are times when I don’t recognize myself. In the manic effort to be different, to distinguish myself from the deadened conformity of a Californian suburb, I wonder if I’ve rendered myself a complete stranger…on the outside looking at some strange caricature of myself.

Sometimes, I scream at myself. I scream things like, “You’re from Orange County. Shouldn’t you be a Republican Ad executive?” or, “You don’t really care about poverty reduction and labor market policies in developing countries. What you really care about is how the Lakers did last night.”

But then I realize that the paradigms we assign ourselves come with dangerous and limiting boundaries. The unknown parts of the world and the unexplored recesses of our minds are dark indeed. And I think that a good metric of what it means to have lived a “good life” is the extent to which these dark spots have been illuminated by the end of your life. By going around, we realize that the sun shines in places other than Southern California.

But really, am I fooling myself? Or is it right to say that I’m becoming a better part of myself by eschewing my domesticated roots? I think, maybe a little bit of both.

I don’t fully recognize this guy who pretends not to care about going to Africa. But I’m going, and maybe that’s the point. We’ll never be anything other than who we were, but that shouldn’t limit who we might become. We drift along…some currents in our lives stronger than others and every once in a while, we get to choose which river bend to take. But we’ll never know for sure if our choices will end us up on some sandy beach or if we’ll end up falling off the side of a waterfall.

I’m drifting now and if I ever give you the impression that I’m in control, or swimming in any particular direction, please keep this in mind:

I still can’t sleep the night before a plane ride.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Lanterns in Dark Places

  1. love, love, love this post! I can empathize, though I’d say I’ve become a better part of myself that I’ve always wanted to be and that I’m glad I’m able to catch myself when I’m being pretentious because I’ve got some west coast in myself. woohoo Californians

  2. Chris, this is a beautiful post. You are a wonderful writer. I love this quote and I live by it everyday.

    A person needs at intervals to separate from family and companions and go to new places. One must go without familiars in order to be open to influences, to change.

    – Katharine Butler Hathaway

  3. Vahan

    Chris, I remained amazed at your mastery of the English language. Great posts. All best.

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